Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I first starting thinking about quantum mechanics while trapping muskrats when I was 10 years old.
I grew up in The Pas. Every Saturday when I was young, my father would fuel up his old snowmobile, attach a rickety red sleigh full of snares, traps, and supplies, and pile his kids aboard for a ride out into the frozen swamps in search of muskrats.
As many Northerners know, muskrat homes are reedy domes jutting out of the frozen swampland, looking like tiny beaver lodges. Each muskrat enters and leaves its home through a hole into the water below the lodge, safe from predators like mink and foxes.
Trapping muskrats requires skill and patience. As my father taught us, you must carefully cut a hole out of the side of the lodge with an axe, set the trap (difficult with bare hands in -30 C conditions), and plug the newly cut hole, packing it tightly with snow and grass. Hopefully, when the muskrat comes back, it senses no disturbance in the home that it built, and steps into the trap.
Upon returning to the traps the next morning, I’d keenly watch, barely able to contain my excitement, as my father cut into a reed lodge. They were usually empty, but my father would occasionally (much to our delight) reach into a trap and retrieve a frozen muskrat. That meant a cozy afternoon of skinning and stretching pelts around the wood stove, while regaling our mother with the story over hot chocolate.
Each time we checked the traps I wondered: did we catch a muskrat, or not? Call it the mystery of Melko’s muskrat. From the outside, it was impossible to know. No internal disturbance around the trap would be detectable through the thick reed walls.
I sometimes wondered how the universe would decide whether we deserved a successful catch. If I wished hard enough, could I change the outcome, right up until the moment my father stuck his hand into the house?
As I grew up, I came to understand that the muskrat was caught by the trap (or not) sometime in the middle of the night. Or so I thought, until I learned about quantum superposition during an undergraduate physics class, which opened my mind to a different way of thinking about the possibilities.
It turns out that the basic laws of quantum physics, governing tiny objects like atoms and electrons, can allow these objects to live in the superposition of two states. A muskrat, in this context, can be both alive and dead when unseen in the middle of the night.
An electron only chooses its state when a "measurement" is made, like the act of cutting into the reed lodge. As I found out, the paradox even had a name, "Schrödinger’s cat," which suggests a cat that is both alive and dead in a box (although to this day I think Melko’s Muskrat is a more plausible thought experiment).
I am now a theoretical physicist, working at Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo in Ontario. I research quantum mechanics, computer simulation, and information theory, each of which poses puzzles and paradoxes as vexing as Melko’s muskrat.
As a researcher, I travel the world to work with other researchers on solving puzzles such as superconductivity, black holes, artificial intelligence, and quantum computers. As a professor, I hope to inspire a younger generation of physicists to explore this big, fascinating universe with a similar spark of curiosity.
Growing up in the North fuelled my own inquisitiveness about the world. Curiosity is powerful force we’re all born with, and we should aim to never lose that youthful desire to explore, ask questions, read difficult books, and think crazy ideas.
The path to success is lined with hard work, and repeated failure, but with perseverance I believe that anyone, from anywhere, can do what I do and more.
Over the next few weeks, a traveling science exhibition called the "Power of Ideas" will visit communities across Manitoba. It’s an opportunity to feed your own curiosity, and learn about some of the coolest work happening in science, from a super-powered particle collider to an Earth-sized telescope that will take humanity’s first picture of a black hole.
The exhibit aims to showcase that curiosity and a scientific mindset can take you anywhere you want to go.
Just remember during your travels to make it home for some of mom’s muskrat stew every once in a while.
Roger Melko is a faculty member at Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo, focusing on condensed matter physics and machine learning. Perimeter Institute is leading a nationwide celebration of Canadian ingenuity, Innovation150 (innovation150.ca), which is touring Manitoba from April 13 to May 4, 2017.